I’ve just attended a media broadcast short course for academics at the university delivered by Steve Dyson. It’s my second course with him (I went to a writing for the media course as well) and I’m glad I was in both of them. Steve surprised me in this second one by actually doing some research on us beforehand to grill the participants in mock TV interviews.
It was even more surprising because he actually decided to ask me about my science fiction interests rather than my academic research. Instead of quantum mechanics or the physics of complexity, I end up answering questions about Dr Who’s complicated universe.
Since the show was revived in 2005, Dr Who’s universe became ever more complicate and lately many fans have been complaining about it. Steven Moffat, which became leading writer in 2009, has been blamed for it. Moffat wrote some of the most memorable episodes of the recent version of the show, from which Blink is the most famous with its unforgettable Weeping Angels.
But what happens with Dr Who is not different from what happens with most successful sci-fi or fantasy shows – they start to develop a universe with its own mythology and chronology. This is both a blessing and a curse.
Mythologies are important to keep a universe alive. Star Trek is the best example. The details of its universe is what keep new and old fans interested. It is an endless source of specialised knowledge that any aficionado, in any field, loves to accumulate. It helps to escape from everyday life, which can be not only challenging but many times quite boring. Many amazing franchises actually suffer from a lack of an extended mythology and timeline, like The Ghostbusters. Other good examples of complex universes are Dungeons & Dragons, Marvel and DC. All of them can be almost prohibitive to a newbie and takes hours, if not years, of reading to be able to catch up with all its nuances.
And that brings us to the curse. While the older or more sophisticated reader/watcher might be willing to make the effort to immerse itself into these universes, the general public will not have that much will or patience. Although original fans will remain, as they need less effort to keep up with the pace, potentially new ones will have some difficult and might simply give up. This is particularly worrisome for a show that aims to include children in its audience.
The balance is a difficult one – it is the clash between a long term successful franchise in which profit comes from an extended fanbase in time and the more immediate capitalist hunger to earn from weekly popularity figures. This is a hard decision. One thing that can be done though is to try to limit plot twists. Although twists are necessary to keep watchers’ interest, too many of them can make it difficult to follow the storyline. Star Trek, for instance, excels in doing that. On the other hand, some shows had exaggerated in their us and end up ruining themselves. The one that broke my heart most was Heroes. I would wait every week for a new episode, but when they started to change radically the plot every episode, the mythology was destroyed and there was no more characters to empathise with.
If I had one single advice for Dr Who at the moment, that would be the one – twist, but not too much.